Wicky wicky wild…
This summer, Wild Wild West—director Barry Sonnenfeld’s follow-up film to the first Men in Black (1997)—turns 20-years-old and while it was under-appreciated back in 1999, I find the movie to be a fun, creative, and genre-mashing masterpiece.
Based on the 1960s TV series of the same name, the western/steampunk/science fiction/alternate history/comedy flick takes place in 1869 (four years after the end of the Civil War) and follows a government-sanctioned investigation into the mysterious kidnapping of America’s top scientists in the fields of metallurgy, hydraulics, and chemistry.
At the behest of President Ulysses S. Grant (Kevin Kline), two U.S. agents—the trigger-happy Jim West (Will Smith) and the invention-happy Artemus Gordon (Kline pulling double duty)—take on the case, which leads them to an insane Confederate scientist by the name of Dr. Arliss Loveless (a perfectly over-the-top Kenneth Branagh), who’s got a dastardly plot to undo the treaty signed at Appomattox and take over the country. During their mission, West and Gordon gain a third wheel in the form of Rita Escboar (Salma Hayek), a woman who claims that one of the kidnapped scientists is her father.
“I always loved the television show and one of the things I really liked about it was the tonal combination of western and science fiction,” Sonnenfeld told me over the phone. “I thought that was really cool and it’s hard to pull off, but if you can pull it off, it’s kind of fun. Will Smith had approached me, I think he had gotten the script first—I think that’s the way it went down. I had done Men in Black with him and loved working with him, so we decided to do that show together.”
Right from the start, Warner Bros.’ cinematic adaptation of Wild Wild West did not have the support of the show’s original star, Robert Conrad, who would later attend the Razzie ceremony where the movie was awarded the prize for Worst Picture.
“[He] had a real real problem with a black person playing Jim West. He didn’t say it in so many words, but at one point, he sort of threatened me and told me that he had friends that could make sure the [movie] didn’t happen,” added Sonnenfeld. “I told Will and Will’s response was, ‘Hell, I’m from Philly,’ meaning: ‘Bring it on!’ In any case, Robert was not involved in the show and didn’t really want it to happen with Will Smith. I also felt that I needed to create a movie version of the show, so I did not go back and look at old episodes.”
Following the massive success of the first MiB at Sony/Columbia, the Addams Family filmmaker believed that he could recapture that same energy within the context of the Old West. And while I think Smith and Kline have some pretty good chemistry in Wild Wild West, Sonnenfeld, feels he wasn’t really able to recreate the same electricity that audiences had seen between Smith (Agent J) and Tommy Lee Jones (Agent K) on the big screen two years earlier.
“Truthfully, both those movies should be very similar in that you have one guy who’s sort of the straight man and one guy who’s sort of the Lucille Ball to Desi Arnaz or Gracie Allen to George Burns,” continued Sonnenfeld. “You only want one guy being funny in your comedy and I think that the problem with Wild Wild West is because we didn’t have that same dynamic of one guy who’s sort of the curmudgeon and one guy who’s the goofy one, we didn’t have that same chemistry. But I was trying to do a similar buddy movie in Wild Wild West in the same way we were able to pull it off in Men in Black … Early on, I felt that there wasn’t the chemistry I was hoping there would be between Will and Kevin. It’s a long show to do when you try different ways of creating that chemistry and you realize that you’re probably not gonna pull it off. [However,] I think both performances are [still] really good. I think both Kevin as Gordon and Grant is really good; I think Will as West is really good, but I felt that they were sort of never in the same scene together chemically.”
The filmmaker revealed to me that he had discussed the role of Gordon with George Clooney before production took place, but that the Dusk Till Dawn actor decided to ultimately pass on the part, feeling that West got all the good lines and action.
“I think it was Thanksgiving morning [and] he called me and said he read the new draft and still had concerns and I said, ‘Why don’t we just agree we’ll be friends and I’ll find someone else? Don’t worry about it because I don’t want you to do a movie you’re not gonna enjoy being on or you’re not gonna like what your character is doing.’ So, we parted ways very amicably.”
Looking at the secondary characters, you also have two gonzo performances from both Branagh (Thor) and Ted Levine (Silence of the Lambs), the latter of whom plays “Bloodbath” McGrath, a Confederate general with a gramophone speaker for one of his ears.
Lovelace, on the other hand, lost the lower half of his body during the war and despite being bound to a wheelchair, is able to rely on his own intellect as well as steam-powered, arachnid-inspired gadgets to win the day. Branagh, a native of England and a die-hard stage performer, had no trouble shedding his Shakespearean sensibilities for the persona of a bitter and unhinged Southern scientist. He completely embodies the character and according to Sonnenfeld, the celebrated British actor/director was totally committed to the role before the cameras even started rolling:
“Kenneth Branagh [came in to the table read] not only knowing his parts perfectly, but [he] came in in hair and makeup. He had that trident beard that’s in the movie and at the end of the table read, the head of production at Warner Bros. came up to me and said, ‘Should we get rid of Kenneth Branagh and hire this other guy to play Dr. Lovelace? He’s so good!’ And I said, ‘That is Kenneth Branagh.’ But because he was in hair, makeup, and wardrobe, the head of production didn’t even know it was Kenneth because he spoke in a southern accent and everything … He was a real trooper, he was always in that wheelchair and he had to get into it all the time, so there was a lot of enjoyable stuff.”
Aside from the performances, the movie is aided by a seamless mix of a 19th Century aesthetic with anachronistic technology that still looks like it could have existed in the late 1800s. This mixture of old and new was achieved via the efforts of production designer Bo Welch, makeup designer Rick Baker, and prop master, Doug Harlocker—all of whom had worked on crafting the iconic world of Men in Black.
“I really loved the concept of what we were trying to do, which was have a science fiction movie in the Old West, but make it seem like it’s not science fiction and that it’s totally [part of] reality,” Sonnenfeld said. What was really fun for me was seeing what the White House looked like back then and seeing sheep on the lawn … I love playing with history … taking the reality of the West and putting in this fictional steampunk kind of stuff and the challenge was make it as real as the Western stuff … One of the things that’s so important to me, whether it’s Men in Black or Wild Wild West, is you buy you’re almost watching a documentary. If you look at Men in Black, you buy the reality of the worm guys, you buy the reality of the story, and the visual effects are very real and not CGI or video game-like.”
One of the director’s favorite sets was the high-tech train that President Grant lends to his agents for their arduous mission.
“I really enjoyed shooting on that train we built,” he said. “All the mechanical gags [were great], the pool table flipping upside down and going under the tracks and all the sort of prop stuff that we pulled off.”
Two of the director’s biggest problems with the movie, which he recently watched, both arrive in Act III. One is Lovelace’s giant mechanical spider capable of destroying a frontier town and the other is the sequence where Jim, dressed as a female belly dancer, seduces Lovelace during a monologue in an effort to free Gordon and the president.
“If I had to do it all over again, I think what I would do differently was have the spider be smaller in scale,” Sonnenfeld admitted. “A lot of the movie I really like, but I think the spider is so big, that as soon as it appears, I think it takes the audience out of the movie, especially since a lot of our viewers were not of the generation who’d watched the original show … I think if the scale had been 50% smaller, you would’ve bought the reality more … Where I think it also went off the rails a little bit—and I had a large disagreement and lost with [producer] Jon Peters —was Jon always wanted a scene with Will Smith in drag. I felt it was just gonna be goofy and silly and not believable and was gonna take you out of the movie and eventually, I lost and for me, I cringe when I watch that scene. Up until then, I think Kenneth Branagh’s performance in that scene, talking about how the U.S. is gonna be divided up between England and Spain and France and himself, and there’s this great 360-degree dolly move with the camera mounted to his wheelchair. It’s all fantastic and wonderful and the set is fantastic and then Will shows up in drag and for me, the movie’s over. I never recover from that.”
The size of the spider, Jim’s belly dancing moment, and the onscreen chemistry between the two leads are the three elements Sonnenfeld cites as keeping the film from reaching its full potential as “a great movie.”
“If I could fix those three things, I think instead of making a quarter of a billion, I think it would’ve make three quarters of a billion,” he elucidated.
At the end of the movie, President Grant appoints West and Gordon as the first-ever secret service agents, a move that could have opened up a number of exciting possibilities for a sequel that never happened. In any case, it seems like Warner Bros. was never really interested in giving the green light to a second Wild Wild West.
“I did not hear of any discussion about a sequel. I think that although the movie made a profit, it didn’t make a big enough profit to do that again,” Sonnenfeld said.
And, of course, no Sonnenfeld-Smith collaboration in the 1990s was complete without an original rap song written and performed by Smith himself. In this case, the actor delivered another earwig-y track set to the instrumental part of Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish.”
“The Men in Black song was so successful and so wonderful and he did such a great job with the video,” Sonnenfeld explained. “Back then, those music videos were a very important sales tool and MTV was around and all that. So, I asked Will if he would write another song for Wild Wild West and his producing partner, James Lasseter, came to me and said, ‘Look, we don’t wanna get into a rut of using Will’s music career to promote his movie career, but we’ll do it for you again.’ I love both the Men in Black song and I love the ‘Wicky Wicky’ Wild Wild West song.”
Sonnenfeld also recalled two stories from the set, one where they trained a young puppy to listen into General McGrath’s gramophone ear and (a nod to the old RCA logo) and one where Will Smith unintentionally broke the director’s hand. Because the days could get so boring and tedious between shots on the big CGI studio project, he and Smith would punch each in the arm for “lack of anything better to do.” There was no point to it other than the fact to inflict as much pain as possible.
“After about four days of trading punches … I mentally decide, ‘I’m gonna hurt Will.’ I have visualized that Will has harmed my daughter … and I’m gonna get back at him. I hit his arm so hard and so badly, that I instantly broke my fifth metacarpal in five places. It was like punching a brick wall and now I’m in profound pain and he’s laughing hysterically. I then have to go to the studio doctor who looks at my hand and says, ‘What happened?’ And I can’t say, ‘Oh, I was trading punches with Will because I wanted to be as irresponsible as possible.’ So I said, ‘I walked into a door.’ He said, ‘You walked into a door?’ I said, ‘Yes, that’s what happened.’ He said, ‘Ok, ‘let me take your blood pressure.’ He lifts up my sleeve and sees that my shoulder, which has been hit and pummeled over the last week, is red and black and yellow and blue. He said, ‘How did that happen?’ I said, ‘I have no idea.’ I’m sent to the hospital to have emergency surgery and what’s funny about it is at the same time, Will Smith gets a call from Jada saying, ‘Get to Cedars right now, I’m about to have our baby [Jaden].’ Will is at Cedars, going back and forth between the eighth floor where Jada has just given birth and the second floor where I’ve just come out of surgery for my hand.”
With everything being rebooted or remade these days, I asked Sonnenfeld if he’d like to see a modern day version of Wild Wild West. His answer was promising:
“I don’t think I would wanna do it. I’d done that thing already, but I wouldn’t mind seeing it and I think if they called me and asked for some advice, I’d give it to them. I think that right now, the world is more prepared for that combination of science fiction and the west or science fiction and other [genres] and I think it might do nicely.”